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09.13.10

How Republicans Could Lose the Tea Party

If the GOP retakes Congress and doesn’t immediately take on the Tea Partiers’ top issue, the national debt, they face a backlash that could cost them the support of the movement—whose expectations are sky high.

For Tea Partiers, President George W. Bush’s bank-busting ways are the GOP’s original sin, and leaders say they expect a hypothetical Republican majority to make significant budget cuts immediately upon taking office in January. After keeping these activists happy with a steady diet of rhetorical red meat until now, Republicans face the prospect of a backlash if the nation’s fiscal outlook doesn’t improve under their watch.

“If the Republicans get control and don’t get serious about [the budget], and I know Obama can still veto anything, the Tea Party movement will be very unhappy in 2012.”

After all, no issue has done more to unify the Tea Party activists now threatening moderate Republicans on Tuesday in Delaware and New Hampshire than the national debt. And Republican leaders have been all too happy to oblige the grassroots, slamming the White House over the budget from the moment President Obama took office. But while harping on the deficit is easy when the other party is running up the bills, it’s a lot tougher when the country’s checkbook rests in your hands—and with the GOP poised to potentially retake Congress, that time may be approaching.

For some in the Tea Party movement, the standard they plan to judge the party’s progress by is sky high. A spokesman for Rand Paul, the Tea Party-backed Senate candidate in Kentucky, said Paul “will vote against and filibuster any unbalanced budget proposal in the Senate.”

Making the task of reducing the deficit even tougher, Republican lawmakers are pushing to extend $678 billion of Bush-era tax cuts for high-income earners, and many conservative activists are calling for further tax breaks as well. Paul is already warning conservatives not to be fooled if Republicans opt only for the more popular tax cuts while punting on the spending side.

“We as Republicans have taken the easy way out a lot of times,” Paul wrote in a recent Facebook post. “We vote to cut taxes but we don’t ever vote to cut any spending. Because as soon as you do, as soon as you bring up a program, it’s somebody’s program and they love it.”

Other Tea Party leaders are using similar benchmarks to judge the next Congress.

“I personally think a balanced budget is imperative and I think there’s tremendous support for a balanced budget,” said Mark Meckler, a spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots. Lawmakers who vote for anything less will “see a lot of frustration out there in the electorate if they do that.”

If the conservatives rushing to the polls to elect Tea Party candidates see things the same way as Paul and Meckler, Republicans are in deep trouble. Achieving a balanced budget in the next year is—to put it mildly—unrealistic.

“Implausible,” said Rudolph Penner, who ran the Congressional Budget Office under President Reagan.

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Instead, he said, fiscal conservatives’ top goal should be to secure a long-term deal to reduce Social Security and Medicare costs, possibly jumping off upcoming recommendations from the president’s deficit commission. But whether they have the political appetite even to propose such measures is an open question. Penner, now a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, noted that many Republicans attacked Democrats for trying to cut Medicare as part of the new health-care law.

“The real question is will Republicans have the courage to take on those programs,” Penner said.

Even then, serious entitlement reforms would take decades to implement. The party’s most far-reaching deficit-reduction plan so far comes from Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, and features major cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, but even that does not balance the budget until 2063 in a best-case scenario. Nor does Ryan expect his plan to be implemented any time soon, largely because Republicans lack the political will to join him. In a recent panel discussion, he said he instead would strive for “consensus” on next year’s budget if his party retakes the House.

Asked about Tea Party calls for a balanced budget, spokesmen for Ryan and House Minority Leader John Boehner both pointed to a more modest plan being put forward by Republican leaders to freeze non-security discretionary spending at 2007-08 levels and recall temporary programs like TARP and the stimulus, reducing spending in total by about $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. This year’s budget deficit alone is $1.3 trillion.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a deep hole, but the first step is to stop digging,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.

Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the Dick Armey-led FreedomWorks, said House leaders’ spending freeze, which accounts for $925 billion of the proposed savings, is a realistic goal for Republicans, if a weak one.

“If you’re talking about freezes, our base wants to see cuts,” he said. However, “if you have Republicans on one side and a Democratic administration on the other and all they can get is to flatline the budget, I’d take that and then we can kick the can down the road to the presidential campaign.”

But Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, said in an email interview that using Democratic control of the White House as an excuse would only go so far.

“If the Republicans get control and don’t get serious about this issue, and I know Obama can still veto anything, the Tea Party movement will be very unhappy in 2012,” he said, adding that Republicans would not get partial credit for tax breaks not offset with cuts to spending.

Some Republican leaders outside Congress are demanding that lawmakers set their sights higher. Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia and onetime chairman of the Republican National Committee, is touting a plan this week from his Free Congress Foundation in which lawmakers would vote on $750 billion in reductions to annual spending.

“Small half measures won’t work and [cuts] can’t be temporary,” Gilmore said.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the Republican Party’s most respected economic minds, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, is calling for a new $500 billion round of temporary tax cuts offset only partially by reductions to spending in order to boost employment. Obama’s recent willingness to explore similar measures could tempt some Republicans to work out a deal, potentially bumping the deficit in the short term with the GOP’s blessing and taunting Tea Partiers with a victory for the White House.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.